Cuisinart and instant everything not withstanding, entertaining is a labor. A labor of love, one hopes, and not likely to call forth the same sympathy as wounds that are not self-inflicted.
Though we bring it on ourselves, there is no denying that a good party takes work. The host may not be the first person who leaps to mind when you think about Labor Day, but here, as elsewhere, the situation has improved over the years.
The social changes that brought three-week paid vacations and the eight-hour day to the worker have brought similar benefits into the life of the entertainer. Before moaning about all the work it takes to give a dinner, read of the rigors prescribed for the hostess of 1884, as set forth by Mrs. John Sherwood in Manners and Social Usages:
" . . . the butler sees that each footman has a clean towel on his arm, and then proceeds to unlock the plate chest and the glass closet. Measuring, with his hand, from the edge of the table to the end of his middle finger, he places the first glass. This measurement is continued around the table, and secures a uniform line for the water goblet, and the claret, wine, hock and champagne glasses, which are grouped about it. He then causes a plate to be put at each place, large enough to hold the majolica plate with the oysters, which will come later.
"One footman is detailed to fold the napkins, which should be large, thick, fine and serviceable for this stage of the dinner. The napkins are not folded in any hotel device, but simply in a three-cornered pyramid that will stand holding the roll or bread. The knives, forks, and spoons, each of which is wiped by the footman with his clean towel so that no dampness of his own hand shall mar their sparkling cleanliness, are then distributed. These should be all of silver; two knives, three forks, and a soup-spoon being the usual number laid at each plate . . ."
And if it seems in this case as though the butler had all the work, think of the poor hostess who, when hiring this helper, must discover not only his skills but whether he is hamhanded and likely--instead of setting the pretty glasses all in a row--to upset the delicate balance of her table.
Today's hostess is spared not only the necessity of measuring her butler's hand, but of producing favors for her female guests: "Much taste and ingenuity are expended on the selection of favors for ladies, and these pretty fancies--bonbonnieres, painted ribbons and reticules, and fans covered with flowers--add greatly to the elegance and luxury of our modern dinner table."
But giving favors had pitfalls:
"A less reasonable conceit is that of having toys--such as imitation musical instruments, crackers which make an unpleasant detonation . . . balloons, flags, and pasteboard lobsters, toads and insects--presented to each lady. These articles are neither tasteful nor amusing, and have 'no excuse for being' except that they afford an opportunity for the expenditure of more money."
Pasteboard lobsters or insects? Oh, well, it was a Gilded Age and one which righteously justified its excesses by claiming that extravaganzas made work for the poor: the workers who labored to create pasteboard toads, no doubt, and the footmen who fed them pasteboard flies.
But if we have no desire to return to the absurdities of such formality, we would find it even less appealing to go back to an earlier age--and not that much earlier either--when the comforts and conveniences we take for granted didn't exist.
Susan Strasser, in Never Done, a History of American Housework, reminds us that "Until the 1840s, city as well as country diets lacked milk, fresh fruits and vegetables; produce was scarce in winter and perishable in summer, and what little showed up fresh in the market might wilt in the sun before the day ended . . . even the most elegant and affluent homes were limited to available supplies: a trifle served at a dinner at President Washington's New York residence tasted of rancid cream, and at another dinner there in August 1789, described by a senator as the finest he had ever eaten, the lengthy menu included no vegetables."
No year-round fresh produce, no instant this or that, no store-bought ice cream for a quick and effortless dessert, no restaurants to deliver pizza or Chinese food.
And often no notice that you were about to be made a host. Before the days of telephones, guests simply showed up.
One woman remembers that when she was growing up in the Midwest in the early 1900s, the guests' presence was announced by their appearance on the horizon. "My mother would run out into the yard, kill a chicken and pluck the feathers. By the time the guests had reached the house, she'd have the chicken in the oven."
And so, this Labor Day as we loll about, let us remember all the people who remained hospitable back in the days when it took a lot of pluck.